American animation has been in a rut for a while. Not in terms of quality, per se. We’ve been treated to many a wonder, from Turning Red to Coco to Encanto from the House of Mouse alone. Yet stylistically things have gotten same-y. 2D animation is all but dead on the continent (at least in the mainstream) and CGI rules the roost. So, spare some snaps for Henry Selick, one of the few people in the field who has remained stridently loyal to the beauty of stop-motion. From The Nightmare Before Christmas to James and the Giant Peach to Coraline, Selick has continued to prove the artistic marvels of the medium, the perfect canvas for this love of the macabre. Now, he has a new creative partner in Jordan Peele, his co-writer, producer, and star of Netflix’s Wendell and Wild.
Based on an unpublished novel by Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman, Wendell and Wilde follows Kat (Lyric Ross), a wayward teen whose life fell apart when her parents died in an accident she blames herself for. Sent to a private school in her now-derelict home town for a second chance, she soon discovers things won’t be much easier for her. She’s a hellmaiden, someone with the ability to summon (and become a servant to) demons. Her match happens to be a pair of buffoons (voiced by Key and Peele) who want to strike out on their own as devilish power players away from their controlling dad (a perfectly cast Ving Rhames.)
Befitting a Selick production, everything looks sumptuous. The way each character moves is unique: the penguin-like nuns slide across floors as if they have no feet while Kat stomps around in her epic platforms like many a surly teen girl looking for trouble. Everyone has expressive eyes while some have hands that curl their fingers like snakes in the grass. There’s not a single thing about this film that in any way looks generic. The ensemble cast is packed full of memorable characters, such as the tough but caring Sister Helly (Angela Bassett) and the doddering yet scheming Father Bests (James Hong, continuing to have one hell of a year on the big screen.) Even the token popular girl in the school isn’t a clichÃ© bully but rather a naÃ¯ve teen who genuinely wants to be Kat’s friend. Kat herself is overloaded with pain, utterly convinced that she doesn’t deserve to be happy. ‘I figured I’d just hate myself for the rest of my life,’ she explains in voiceover. She pushes away possible friends, has no patience for positivity, and a zero bullsh*t filter.
Henry Selick and Jordan Peele make for a striking creative pair. Selick remains one of the true stalwarts of stop-motion animation, a purveyor of the gothic and grotesque whose most famous film is seldom credited to him. Peele is the modern horror guru, the Rod Serling whose work finds the sweet spot between scares, satire, jokes, and piercing insight. It’s not hard to imagine Peele devouring Selick’s stories in his younger days and being inspired by that blend of weird, funny, and freaky (I bet he’s super into Monkeybone). Their generational meeting brings some fruitful ideas to the table, a mish-mash of what they both do best. Selick indulges in astonishingly beautiful character design and old-school horror tropes, while Peele brings a sharp critical edge with themes of the prison industrial complex and the trauma of grief. When it works, it soars, but the unevenness of it all makes for a few too many moments of lag.
We know these guys can balance the funny with the bleak but tonally, there are scenes where it feels as though timidity struck them down. Key and Peele’s characters are sillier than scary, going into full Abbott and Costello territory at times, which both actors can do in their sleep, but then they come up against themes of trauma, bereavement, and the death of a town, which makes for an awkward fit. The ambitions are clear, especially with politically heavy elements like the villains’ plan to build for-profit prisons over the old town and treat Kat’s school as a direct pipeline for future prisoners. It’s gutsy stuff for a kids’ movie that could have used more room to breathe. Selick nailed this tightrope walk more effectively with Coraline, a gorgeous and often very funny film that went hard on the agony of growing up. But that film was as tight as an apple skin, streamlined to elegant effect. Here, it’s as though Selick and Peele have flung everything at the wall to see what sticks for its running time.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of laughs to be had with Wendell and Wild, or moments of heart. While it does hammer home the moral of the tale in a too-neat manner that I’m sure we’ll see turned into a Twitter-friendly meme by Netflix’s marketing team, we could certainly stand to teach children more about processing grief-related guilt. Anyway, we should take any opportunity given to us to relish in stop-motion animation, which feels more and more like a dying art. Wendell and Wild will entertain many a family over the spooky season and seems primed to be a few kids’ introduction to horror, much in the same way that The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline were. Selick’s gift has continued to pay off for generations in that regard.
Wendell and Wild had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will debut on Netflix on October 21.